Cell 106 in the E pod of the maximum security prison in Santa Fe is 7 feet wide and 12 feet long, and holds a bed, a desk, a sink and a toilet. It’s one of several hundred segregation cells at the prison where inmates live alone for 23 hours a day.
There’s a narrow window to the outside sky and another that looks out on a prison corridor. Food comes in on a plastic tray through a slot in the door, and that door opens just once a day, five days a week, for a trip to the recreation yard and the showers.
Gregg Marcantel, a burly 53-year-old former cop, was delivered into E-106 at noon on May 2 under tight security for a 48-hour stint.
“I can tell you, pacing it, I had five large paces from the edge of my bed to the door. I traveled that route quite a bit,” Marcantel told me in an interview later in his much more spacious office. “It’s where I ate, where I exercised, where my toilet was. I didn’t, for 48 hours, speak a word. I did internal dialog, but I didn’t speak a word to another person.”
Marcantel’s mission was to get as close as he could to understanding solitary confinement, a prison policy that has been called dehumanizing and emotional torture.
His interest? He’s New Mexico’s secretary of corrections and one of his key missions is to cut in half the number of inmates housed in solitary.
“There are just things sometimes that you gotta feel, you gotta taste, and you gotta hear and you gotta smell,” Marcantel said. So, several months ago, he assigned a few key members of his staff with a secret mission – to get him into an active segregation unit without inmates knowing his identity so he could have an authentic experience.
Authenticity goes only so far when you’re really a free man, though.
“There’s one component to it that I can’t control for,” Marcantel acknowledged, “and that’s that I know I get out in 48 hours.”
Marcantel dropped his usual Men’s Wearhouse look and was dressed in yellow prison togs with “NMCD State Prisoner” stamped on the back. He was given orange prison-issue slip-on shoes, and confined in handcuffs and leg chains. He grew a beard as a disguise and he wore a knit cap to hide his distinctive flat-top. His cover was that he was a bank robber from Texas being transported from one federal prison to another.
Although inmates in segregation have no physical contact with one another, they communicate by shouting through their cell doors or speaking into heating vents and even into their toilets, which carry conversation through the plumbing pipes. Worried that his distinctive Louisiana drawl would identify him, Marcantel’s cover was that he was deaf and mute, and could only use sign language.
There are 12 cells in a pod, so Marcantel had 11 neighbors, all very curious about the new guy. The chatter started immediately. “What’s up Cell 6? Tell us about yourself.” When Marcantel didn’t answer, “Cell 6, who the (expletive) are you?” Eventually, the rumor started moving from cell to cell that he was a cop.
“Oh, it got ugly. It got tense,” Marcantel said. “I can tell you, it was unnerving.”
The prison chief spent his first 24 hours under the conditions of “administrative segregation,” which is a longer-term isolation used with prisoners who are deemed a physical threat to others. He had a TV (although his didn’t work), an iPod loaded with James Taylor and Van Morrison, snacks and coffee. After 24 hours, he transitioned to “disciplinary segregation” conditions, so he lost his TV, music and extra food.
During the second 24 hours, Marcantel was left alone with a notebook to write in and two books to read. He chose Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s memoir, “Night,” and a management text, “Boundaries for Leaders.”
Marcantel had a small video camera in his cell to document his stay. The footage shows a lot of pacing and looking out the window into the empty corridor: He writes in his journal, he reads, he paces some more, and he unenthusiastically picks at some rubbery pancakes and chewy breakfast meat.
“It’s a great deal different not having coffee, not having snacks, television. It slowed time down and it put me in a position of paying attention in greater detail to my environment,” Marcantel said. “That’s when I did a lot more walking. That’s when I did a lot more thinking. I was missing the iPod because I could pass the time better. But I spent my time reading. I spent my time listening. I spent my time watching, because I think that’s what happens is you begin to find those other stimuli.”
His window to the outside was marred and he could not tell whether it was day or night, so he estimated time by holding his hand to the pane: cool meant it was evening, hot meant midday. He also paid careful attention to meal deliveries, shift changes and cell checks to keep track of time.
“You start after a while to count everything, because that’s how you kind of grab a little bit of control,” he said. “You become a lot more detail-oriented about what your environment looks like.”
He spent a lot of time looking at the concrete block walls, and listening to his neighbors and to the sounds of a prison – buzzers, doors clanking, inmates talking through the vents.
“What really surprised me was how courteous they were and how respectful they were to one another,” Marcantel said. “I realized how frequent the communication was and probably how necessary that was.”
Marcantel has already made some changes in policy based on his time spent doing time and is considering more.
I’ll look at the lessons from his experiment in solitary in next Sunday’s column.